Reluctant Prophet

This morning I listened to part of the story of Jonah. I know that many people are familiar with his journey away from the call God placed upon his life. That running left him on a ship ready to be ripped apart by a storm until he was thrown overboard and swallowed by a big fish.

Many people are aware that this story tells of Jonah’s journey to the place God had called him to go via the belly of the big fish. Eventually Jonah is vomited up on the shore like spoiled seafood and he begins his real journey.

The story tells us that the place Jonah was sent was so large that it would take three days to walk across it. Jonah began his journey and began truly answering his call when he took those first steps into the city. Bleached white by the acid of the stomach of some big fish, seaweed tangled in his hair, and clouded with a stench that proceeded him by the full length of Ninevah, Jonah began to proclaim the destruction of the city. He did so with much reluctance – not because he didn’t want to give bad news to the Ninevites, but because he was afraid that they might hear him, repent, and be spared by God. So, God made certain the people God wished to spare would not miss the message by sending this mess of a prophet to their city.

The reluctance of the prophet came from his experience of the mercy of God.

I get that. Sometimes it is not my fear of being heard that keeps me from speaking. It is not my fear of being misunderstood that locks my lips. It is the fear of being perfectly understood and found standing in the very mess I created by not trusting in that goodness when I began.

The best way to travel to the home I see as God’s Kingdom is as one who is clothed in the mercy and goodness of the God I proclaim. I don’t always get that but I can count on God to dress me up in it – or dress me down with it – so that the message won’t be missed.

Even as the words of Jonah spoke to me this morning, words from Mary Oliver’s “Sometimes” also tugged on my Spirit:

“Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.

Tell about it.

Yeah. That’s a whole lot easier than being bleached, tangled in seaweed and smelling like last week’s thrown out cat food. Perhaps my reluctance can be overcome by God’s mercy.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Amen.

The Morning After Ash Wednesday 2018

Ash Wed Kids_Moment

As part of our Ash Wednesday observance last evening, I read the following passage from 2 Corinthians 6. Although I used a different version during the service, The Message  spoke to me on the morning after:

“People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly…in hard times, tough times, bad time; when we’re beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we’re telling the truth, and when God’s showing his power; when we’re doing our best setting things right; when we’re praised, and when we’re blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all.”

When I arrived to prepare for the service, I noticed that our children and youth, who usually meet on Wednesday evening for lessons in discipleship of one type or another, were gathering in the building as well. I then learned that both groups would be attending the Ash Wednesday service. I loved the thought of having their energy, their wide-eyed faith being among us as we observed this holy day. As they gathered, I heard one little girl excitedly tell her friend how “Pastor Scott was going to put a cross on our foreheads tonight.” I chuckled as I listened.

I sat on the front pew at the start of the service and little Owen sat beside me. We had words flashing on the screen to help people “set the tone” for the service. I asked him if he needed help reading any of them. He stumbled on “Scripture” and had no idea what “Fasting” meant, although he did a great job reading it. He got “Deny Yourself” and “Pray” very easily as well as “Kneel Now”. It was a good conversation when a great kid. One of a dozen or so young ones…along with the dozen or so youth.

Lord, did it hit me while I was reading that passage above.

I was so joyful just to be in worship with the younger ones that I hadn’t forgotten briefly about the big news of the day. I forgot that there were parents and children in Florida who were dead or severely traumatized by our lack of ability to balance safety and rights once again. I was struck while reading this passage that our witness in the face of such tragedy is to go on as people of hope, to keep showing the love of God even as we fight the good fight of doing what was right.

I was reading the passage and I knew that in just a few minutes, Owen and many other children and youth I have grown to love even as my own would soon join the line of people that walk up to their pastor and have me mark their foreheads with the sign of the cross as I said, “You are dust and to dust you will return.”

There are times that I wonder about Jesus’ words of taking his “easy yoke” upon ourselves. This didn’t feel easy at all. With every wide eyed child and every interested teen that came to me last night, I choked just a little more. I didn’t cry. I don’t think any tears escaped, but they wanted flow like rivers.

And then this morning, I came across this poem by Mary Oliver (from a book I’m reading for Lent) and I was struck with the enormity of the creation God has made in us:

We Shake with Joy
We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

I leave with you a brief image, in video form, of what God might have seen last night…Faithful children…a pastor shaking with joy and grief…the people “immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy.”

To all God’s children in Florida struggling with the unspeakable…
my heart goes out to you in love…
my mind fills with thoughts of prayer for you…
and my spirit longs for hope for us all.

Ash Wednesday 2018

“Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion – do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers — most of which are never even seen — don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”

Matthew 6:28-34 The Message

I Worried
(by Mary Oliver)

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, with the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not, how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

from Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver

 

Yep. I. Needed. That.

Scott Sears, Ash Wednesday 2018

Ash Thursday

ashwednesdayThe imposition of ashes was yesterday – of course,
I know that much.
The calendar said so…
The liturgy dictated it…
I even carried out – despite a snow shriveled congregation huddled in a sanctuary being renovated – carpets removed, chalk lines on the floor and walls, electric lines dangling like tongues from the wall.

I thought about the dust swirling about us…
Of course, it was carpet fiber…
Of course, it was wood dust and plaster.
But perhaps, just perhaps, among the sixty year old carpet ripped from its resting place
there were the long ago deposited cells of saints now in glory.
It took my breath away, this thought, and tempted me to breathe deeper still.
We talked about that.
Listened to a reading about dust and ashes, ashes and dust.

And thirteen times
I dipped my index finger into the oily black mess
of burnt palm branches and
God only knows what else that settled from our place of worship.
(Yeah, I’m different that way…I use my thumb to push back stray hairs.)
I made the sign of the cross on foreheads.
I said the words, “You are dust, to dust you shall return.”
We prayed.
We sang.
We stared at the different crosses one pastor/artist could create on the canvass of skin.
We laughed and we left.

But today is “Ash Thursday” for me.
I look at that paintbrush which is my index finger
and I see it.
The ashes,
the dust
that has embedded itself deep into the quick of my finger.
Only a painful cut with the nail clippers will erase its presence.

Yet before I pull out the eraser,
I am reminded
that this is the first time,
the only first time,
that my Dad is among those saints remembered as dust, celebrated as ash.

He is embedded deep too.
Not just in the quick of my finger but somewhere quite deeper…
in the ganglia of my nerves…
in the composition of my cells…
in the foggy clarity of my memory…
in the power of my family system.
Cut off from the family – but present still.

I can cut out the ashes on my recognition of Ash Thursday,
almost as easily as I wiped the cross from my increasing forehead.
But some dust, some ash will remain deep.

Maybe that is why we were told not to look for the living among the dead –
We can easily find the dead among the living…
Look in a mirror…
Listen to a laugh…
Talk to a child…

It’s Ash Thursday for me…and I thank God I am happy for that!

One on each side…

041314_1740_ACrossBetwe1.jpg    At least the blood at stopped pooling at the foot of his cross.

    As a mother, I had seen many scrapes and cuts on my little boy’s body. I had seen blood pour from his forehead one day when he tripped in the street and cracked his head on the rocks. It was a bloody mess. It ruined the clothes he had on that day.

    But it was nothing compared to this. When the spikes first went through his wrists, the blood poured across the wooden crossbeam and pooled in the rocks below. After they lifted the beam and attached it to the upright, the blood still poured from the wounds in his wrists.

    I couldn’t stop watching it.

    But amazingly, in what seemed like hours ago, it stopped. The wounds were there in his wrists and if he fidgeted too much, or tried to lift himself to breathe easier, it would start again. But never much. Maybe it had run out. Maybe the blood couldn’t reach that high in his body anymore. I don’t know. I just know my son had stopped bleeding. It wasn’t much. He would still die. But somehow this little fact comforted me.

    And if only he would quit moving…quit being restless…quit talking…maybe that horror wouldn’t begin again.

    He always was a restless boy. Never content to stay still. Even at the foot of his cross, I could remember him as a child going all through the neighborhood, always a following of other kids with him. They would run the streets and play their games but he was never one to stick to any game for long. He would not come home until someone physically brought him home. “He’s got a restless spirit,” his father would say. But somehow I thought it was endearing, this energy, my child, my boy had. I even remembered the time he convinced others that we had said it would be okay for him to stay the night. Oh, the fright when we found he was missing. We thought he was gone for good. But that time would wait until this day.

    I sat there in the shadows on this passing day and remembered his growing up. The changes. The restlessness turning to moodiness. The moodiness turning to anger. The anger turning against his family.

    I knew he ran around with a dangerous and different crowd. Some of them were prostitutes, both male and female and some were just petty criminals. I didn’t know what my son was but I knew he was still restless, still looking for something, for someone to accept who he was.

    What I didn’t know would come out at his so called trial. My son, my restless wandering boy, had turned to a life of crime and offense of our laws. He stole. He lied. He did things that I could not bear to hear. But none of them changed my love for him. I would stand by him. I would bear this shame on my knees – the shame of my love for my child.

And oh, how those around me stood in judgment. Not only would my son be killed for his offenses, but his family was kicked out of the synagogue. We were told not to return, even after his death. Somehow, what he was tainted us as well. It didn’t matter to me, though. I loved him still.

    Oh, how I wish I had controlled him a bit more when he was younger now. Maybe without the restlessness and all that followed it, I could somehow have avoided this day. And maybe he wouldn’t keep moving on that cross. I know he was leaving. I didn’t want him to leave. But I wanted him to be at peace. I cried for his peace.

    Somewhere in the midst of my tears, I heard one of the others being killed talking. Another said something and I heard my son tell the first to be quiet. He said, “We are getting what we deserve, but this man did nothing.” And the man in the middle said the strangest thing. He looked at me and then looked at my son and said, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” I did not know this man but I heard the rumors swirling around him. He was a teacher, a rabbi, who was stirring people up and had to be killed. Strange words from a rabble-rouser. If anything, his words showed more compassion for my son than any religious person had ever shown.

    My son stared at the man in the middle for what seemed like an eternity. He never moved a muscle while he watched him. He relaxed. His breathing evened out. His struggle stopped.

    And so did the blood.

    Eventually, I heard the soldiers coming. They were clearing the way so they could break the legs of those being crucified and hurry their deaths. They checked one of the men and broke his legs – oh, the screams he made. I wished my son would die before they got to him, but still he looked on the man in the middle.

    The soldiers checked that man and found he was dead. His mother cried out and I knew her pain but I wished, oh how I wished they would have stayed longer checking on him. I knew what would come next.

    The soldier’s reached my son’s cross and he moved his eyes from the man in the middle and looked at me. There wasn’t a muscle moving when they hammered at his legs. I waited for his screams, but nothing came. He looked at me, looked at the man in the middle, and breathed his last breath.

    I thought I would cry. I expected to wail. But I didn’t. My son, my son had found peace at last. If I cry in the future, it will only be because he had not found it until that man in the middle spoke to him words of hope and words of love.

    My son…my restless son…had found peace.

…one on each side … John 19:18